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The Digital-Era Boy Wizard Behind Our First Illustrated Cover For The June 2020 Issue

Singapore artist Howie Kim translates fantastical, almost trippy pop culture-influenced imagery through digital drawings, animated videos and more recently, AR (augmented reality) filters, and now he’s birthed female’s first illustrated cover for June 2020. Female talks to this digital-era boy wizard about his obsession with famous people, embrace of millennial stereotypes and the importance (or irrelevance) of being “real” today.

To say that visual artist Howie Kim, 29, is an alchemist for these strange times might not be a stretch. If you’re not yet familiar with his work, check out his Instagram page (@howie759) where 147K followers avidly consume his Dali-esque dreamscapes filled with axolotls, Disney fairy-tale characters, Teletubbies, pop culture queens (Britney, Paris, Lindsay and Lindsay as Cady Heron, of course) and most importantly, lots of Howie Kim.

Howie Kim as a Gachapon machine, as the biblical Tree of knowledge of good and evil, as a wholly new amphibian species, a scorpion, a cherub. Why the seeming obsession with himself at the centre of his art? “I often like to celebrate the common stereotypes and perceptions of millennials, one of which is narcissism,” he explains. “Apart from that, I think of using myself as an avatar of sorts in my works, playing different roles and characters for a world that I create. It’s fun. It’s like playing dress up – just digitally.”

“I often like to celebrate the common stereotypes and perceptions of millennials, one of which is narcissism.” – Howie Kim

Is it a brilliantly rendered take on pop culture commentary? The boyish Kim shrugs it off. “Any expression can be a form of art. I like to use my art to answer questions such as ‘What is my favourite animal?’”. (The answer, dear reader, is the snake. He’s had a thing for animals, especially reptiles, since young and even brought a gold Tyrannosaurus Rex toy model to a previous shoot with this magazine to use as a prop. His dream? To be a zookeeper.)

This almost child-like whimsy, coupled with his uncanny ability to take elements of what’s “real”, juxtapose them with seemingly random pop cultural imagery then magick them all up with fantastical proportions to great psychedelic effect is what makes his work undeniably Howie Kim. That the results hit right smack at the intersection of pop culture, millennia nostalgia and social media also makes him an artist made for these times. So what exactly is it like to live in – and build – his startling, surreal universes?

This article first appeared in the June 2020 Collaboration Issue of FEMALE.

For starters, describe Howie Kim in real life. “I would describe myself as a nervous 13-year-old who’s timid and childish. I am usually rather quiet and awkward until I am comfortable with someone.”   Your works come across as an astute blend of pop culture commentary, selfies and Internet culture. What is your creative process like? “Growing up in the ’90s allowed me to grow up alongside the Internet and technology – from dial-up Internet on our-then gigantic PCs to the evolution of social media on our modern-day pocket devices. These changes affect the way people put out and consume information and I think that sort of forms how millennials think and approach things.   Today, a lot of my works are inspired by the things I see online: memes, viral videos, social media and selfies. I don’t really have a standard process – it really depends on what I’m working on. In terms of an illustration, for example, I generally start with an inspiration from something that I see somewhere. I’d do some sketches or quick planning on my iPad and if I like it, I would go on to fully illustrate it. Sometimes if I think that’s not enough, then I’d animate it into a short clip or GIF.”     Above: Howie Kim’s self-portrait, one of the many that pepper his Instagram account @howie759, which has a 147k-strong following at press time. The digits in the handle are in fact a cipher that he uses as his signature (try spotting it in his works), and he prefers to keep its origins and meaning a secret.
You combine a lot of elements of the surreal and pop culture into your work. Why this seeming obsession? “Both surrealism and popular culture are something that I enjoy a lot. I guess there is some correlation between them. As a teenager, I read tabloid sites such as Perez Hilton to get the scoop on celebrities whom I liked. These days with social media, celebrity culture has changed quite a bit. Celebrities now get to interact with people and curate their lives, picking what they want people to know about them. In some way, this allows us to feel like we know them personally, but how much of it is actually real?   Many of my works involve heavily-processed illustrations and manipulated figures in a surreal world as a way of questioning what is real and fake in this digital age, or rather, if there is even any importance in being real in this era? After all, we now live in a world of 3D-rendered influencers. See Lil Miquela, the avatar created based on artificial intelligence tech and who has over two million followers on Instagram. And of course the Facebook page on which people pretend to be ants in a colony. (This does exist. Google it.)”   Would you say that your work is spiritually along the lines of meme-centric, equally pop culture-influenced Instagram accounts such as Saint Hoax? “I love Saint Hoax – I think it is brilliant! I don’t necessarily think I reinvent these elements of pop culture or memes like how its anonymous creator does though. I usually just borrow their context as an add-on to help narrate a story or fantasy.”   Is meme-making and pop culture commentary an art form? “Definitely. I’d say any expression is a form of art. I guess this is a very broad question. It’s almost like asking what is art.”     Above: Kim’s images usually feature a figure within a natural environment with a surreal quality. “They’re almost like stills or posters featuring a character from a story,” he says. Here, he turns up the “royal-ness” of this graphic Gucci look by interpreting it into a classic portrait bordered by an equally ornate frame and tiger prints. Wool and silk dress and crystal and gold necklace, Gucci
Some might also describe your work as Kimo Kawaii, which refers to something that combines elements of the cute and the creepy, and is an aesthetic that’s Been trending online in recent years. Has that been your intention? “I actually had to Google the term ‘Kimo Kawaii’ to find out what it means. I have been told that my works are sometimes a little creepy-cute. Personally I credit this aspect mainly to two things that were given to me maybe 15 years ago. The first is a Living Dead Doll – for those who don’t know what that is, it’s this creepy collectible doll dating back to the ’90s that comes in a coffin and has its own death certificate that tells you how it died. The second is a sticker featuring a psychotic-looking rabbit and a quote that says ‘Cute but kinda evil’. I think that was when my obsession with this aesthetic began.”   What are some of the biggest influences on your work? “There are many things: personal stories, people I meet, the Internet, social media, films, photos, stories, anything that I find entertaining, I guess. I am also influenced by other creatives/artists: Britney Spears, drag queens, Paris Hilton, David Lachapelle, Mark Ryden, Cindy Sherman, to name a few.”     Above: “The model in the original lookbook image along with her outfit gave me this idea of a runaway college girl. What’s she running away from? I don’t know, but there’s a lot of mystery to her – just like the snake and Atlas moth.” Cashmere cardigan, matching top, wool shorts, leather belt, pearl and brass necklace, cotton and gold bangles, and Book embroidered canvas tote, Dior
Tell us more about your experimentation with AR. “My first experience of working with AR was through a collaboration I did with tech artist Eugene Soh (@dude. sg) sometime in late 2018. It was an interactive installation for SAM at 8Q. Back then I had zero knowledge of AR so all I did was the visuals – Eugene was the one who did his magic on AR and I had a lot of fun with it.   It also made me realise that the medium of AR is really compatible for my work as it integrates all of my artistic interests – millennials, social media, what’s real/fake in the digital age – and would allow my audience to become a part of my works. That was when I decided to learn about the technology myself. After a bunch of YouTube tutorials, I made my first filter and got it published last March. I like to think of my AR filters as purely an extension of my art forms – or as a portal for people to enter these mysterious worlds.”   You’ve mentioned in other interviews that you’d love to work on a film project. why the medium of film? “I began with drawings, moved into oil paintings, followed by digital illustrations and photo manipulations. From there I went into moving images, GIFs and short videos. I think I am constantly trying to find new mediums that are relevant to me. I think my works usually have a narrative aspect so going into film would be something natural for me.”     Above: “The colours and patterns on this column dress got me thinking about The Wizard Of Oz, which led to the incorporation of the tiger, and the Queen Of Hearts from Alice’s Adventures Of Wonderland, whose red hair and cyan eye makeup I’ve transposed onto my make-belief model/character.” Gabardine dress, poplin shirt, Embleme leather shoulder bag, cotton socks, and leather pumps, Prada
How would you imagine that film project to look like? “Exactly like my visual aesthetic: surreal and strange with over-the-top characters; an unrealistic world in which I can do whatever I want, I’d love to cast Eva Green as my lead character. I would die for Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan to make cameo appearances as the perfect pop culture trio and I’d love to work with local filmmaker Jasper Tan (a favourite among Singapore musicians for his witty, ’90s-inflected music videos). I think he has a great eye.”   What’s keeping you inspired or hopeful these days? “The good thing about being a freelancer is that I am comfortable with working from home. I’ve been watching a lot of Netflix and movies, and all this entertainment keeps me inspired. I’ve been working on new pieces and keeping myself creative”   So are there any new projects we should look out for? “I am thinking of making T-shirts, but we’ll see.”     Above: “This outfit is particularly green so I played up on that colour, plus it comes with a cute apple-shaped bag so I wanted to make this image even more cutesy and kitsch.” Tweed blazer, silk shirt dress, Apple leather crossbody bag, and raffia sandals, Kate Spade New York